Maybe Turner Gill was right. Maybe it will be just like old times for the University at Buffalo -- old times meaning that giddy, magical run of 2008 -- despite all the losses and changes.
Old times for UB also means edge-of-your-seat football until the final horn. The Bulls took a 23-7 lead early in the third quarter then fought off a Texas El-Paso rally to take home a 23-17 victory in front of 35,214 Saturday night at the Sun Bowl.
The Bulls caught a break when a Trevor Vittatoe 21-yard touchdown pass with 14.3 seconds left was wiped out because of a UTEP holding penalty. Vittatoe's last pass was broken up by UB's Sherrod Lott and the Bulls celebrated a hard-fought win.
The Bulls used some early miscues by UTEP on special teams to open up an early first half lead then started the second half with an 80-yard scoring drive capped with a 42-yard touchdown pass from Zach Maynard to Naaman Roosevelt.
Undaunted, UTEP answered with a 17-yard touchdown run by James Thomas and a 31-yard field goal by Logan Barrett with 5:45 remaining in the game that cut UB's lead to 23-17.
Now in clock-killing mode, the Bulls ran seven consecutive running plays but Brandon Thermilus was stopped on third down and UB was forced to punt with 2:35 left.
UTEP started its final drive from its own 20 with 2:29 remaining and no time outs. UB, the defending Mid-American Conference champions, start the season 1-0 for the third time in four seasons under Gill.
No Drew Willy? Maynard, the sophomore quarterback was solid in his debut, completing 12 of 19 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. His best play came on his first touchdown pass of his career, a 42-yarder to Naaman Roosevelt that gave the Bulls a 23-7 lead early in the third period.
No James Starks? Senior tailback Mario Henry, who has battled injuries the last two seasons, rushed for 55 yards and a touchdown. Starting tailback Brandon Thermilus shook off a lackluster first half and finished with 79 yards.
The Bulls opened the second half with Maynard's first career touchdown pass to Roosevelt. The Miners brought a heavy blitz and Maynard quickly dumped the ball to Roosevelt who wiggled free in the UTEP secondary for a 42-yard touchdown. It was Roosevelt's 20th career touchdown, setting a school record.
But UTEP wasn't finished as it easily sliced through the Bulls defense to cap a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown run on a reverse by wide receiver James Thomas II to cut UB's lead to 23-14.
The Miners scored first with 5:07 left in the first quarter on a 1-yard run by tailback Jason Williams. UB answered with a 13-play, 60-yard drive which ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by tailback Brandon Thermilus that tied the score at 7-7 with 14:56 remaining in the second quarter. Shoddy special teams play by UTEP aided UB early in the second quarter. After Thermilus' touchdown UTEP kick returner Jeff Moturi muffed the kick and was tackled at the 1-yard line by UB's Chris Storr. UTEP went three and out but a bad snap that sailed high and to the left over UTEP punter's Greg Hiett's head was recovered by the Miners in the end for a safety. After the free kick, former St. Joseph's star Dominic Cook weaved his way 55 yards to the UTEP 25 and tailback Mario Henry scored two plays later on a 6-yard run to give the Bulls a 16-7 lead.
UB 23, UTEP 17